Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, music festivals around the world have been forced to reconsider how they can continue on. While several have ventured into the digital space, many of us are still craving for the high-octane excitement of a live music festivals. In this list, journalist and podcaster Sara Darling, of Talking Travels and Other Stuff, looks back at the past 20 years to share her top ten favourite music festival experiences, from iconic Glastonbury to dancing under the stars in Croatia.
1. Rihanna at Sziget Festival, Budapest, 2016
I would not have paid to see Rihanna perform in an arena at home; but watching her live, belting out her tunes in a field with an audience of over half a million just miles from the city of Budapest, was quite a moment- even if she was 30 minutes late and it was getting a bit nippy.
Once the ego had landed, RiRi sashayed onto stage sporting a large hood which completely concealed her face. Not an entrance I would have expected for a zillion dollar artist who likes to show her body, but it gave me and the rest of the crowd time to whip up to a frenzy with an enchanting melancholic version of “Stay”.
The hood didn’t last long as the performance got more heated and the crowd of people of all ages, sexes and genders were transfixed. Whether you are a fan of her tunes or not, Rihanna has a colossal stage presence. The 75-minute set flew by, and we were teased with a lot of new songs rather than her hits. However, hearing “Umbrella” and “Diamonds” which I do know the words to, was worth the entrance price and if the audience’s cheers were anything to go by- Rihanna’s rumoured $1 million headliners fee.
The final Garden Festival was legendary. With afternoon boat parties on The Argonaughty, four stages for artists such as DJ Harvey, Bonobo, Seth Troxler, Joy Orbison, Ben UFO, Craig Richards and Greg Wilson, and Barbarella's Discotheque- which you were transported to and from in a school bus (often as the sun was rising), the beach location in Croatia has got to be one of the best places in the world for a festival.
My highlight in the sun-drenched summer of 2015 was getting up on stage (along with about 50 other revellers) to get our groove on with the insanely high energy Crazy P soundsystem. With Danielle Moore leading the vocals, the electro funk tunes whipped the international crowd in a frenzy, and it truly was the best Saturday night I have ever had!
3. DJ Derek at The Big Chill, 2011
I arrived at the DJ Derek altar a weeny bit late, seeing him for the first time in the mid-noughties. Taking the crown as the most hardworking and knowledgeable DJ, there are not many folk who know more about ska, soul and reggae than Derek, which he used to spin every week in the Star and Garter pub in his home town of Bristol, after quitting his full time job as an accountant.
After going to the "festival-in-a-club” Big Chill for several years at Eastnor Castle in 2002- I realised that DJ Derek is as much part of the festival as the fancy dress three- legged race on a Sunday, and his set on the Starburst stage on Saturday evening was the last time I saw him perform, so I have melancholic memories.
There is nothing better than chilling out to some of the dubbest basslines in the sun, and seeing the DJ appreciate them too! Derek was on level with the audience, slotting in his mini disks and getting his own groove on. Always wearing a tie and tank top combo, even in his sixties, his energy was astounding, and he knew how to work the crowd at the final Big Chill in the Malvern Hills in the grounds of Eastnor Castle. Sadly, Derek died in 2015, and this is the last time I saw him play.
Another artist I am lucky enough to say I have seen live is David Bowie. Albeit in a shrunken set in 2000! It was hit or miss as to whether he was going to make it as it had been announced that he was ill with laryngitis in the week leading up to Glastonbury, so it was touch and go whether he’d actually perform.
However, the audience were hungry for any kind of show, and the chants got louder in anticipation. The wait was worth it, as just after 10:00 p.m., Bowie casually strode out in a theatrical Alexander McQueen frock coat, with a floral pattern based on the ‘bipperty-bopperty hat’ he wore at his previous appearance, nearly 30 years before.
Looking a little overwhelmed by the cheers from the hyped audience, Bowie soon settled in, and stopped between songs to chat. With such a mammoth back catalogue, it must have been hard to pick a set list, but we were all singing along with the crowd pleasers including Changes, Life on Mars, Absolute Beginners, China Girl and Stay. After two encores: ‘Ziggy Stardust’, “Heroes”, ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’, he bowed out. What a trouper and a true legend.
I didn’t realise I liked trance until I went to the World of Music and Dance festival, otherwise known as Womad. Thankfully I was with some old-timers as I wouldn’t have known where to start with these bands with funny names. This is the opposite of mainstream, but the festival in the grounds of a leisure centre was full of clean hippies!
Electronica duo, Banco de Gaia, is masterminded by Toby Marks and Ted Duggan – and if you’ve never heard of them (like me!) it seems you are in the minority, as the stimulated crowd of old hippies and hard core ravers were able to harmonise to every song played. And the politically charged, hypnotic Last Train to Lhasa is still tattooed in my psyche! Most well-known for sample-heavy, psychedelic, dub, this was my first and most memorable taste of sweaty acoustic electronic trance- I even bought their album Maya.
6. Nile Rodgers and Chic at Love Supreme, 2013
As locations go, Love Supreme festival has it nailed. Conveniently situated about thirty miles from where I live in Glynde, the camping optional festival takes place in the gardens of a stately home with a backdrop of the stunning South Downs.
A local affair, it is growing in popularity every year. It started out as a jazz festival, with the ‘Bandstand’ stage nestled in a forest, and since its conception has attracted almost every kind of contemporary musician.
2013 was the year of 1970s disco icons Nile Rodgers (with his band Chic), glided onto the main stage on Saturday night. Blasting out all his hits, the crowd was ready to get funky. With a huge back catalogue to get through, the whole crowd was dancing like no one was watching to classics such as "Everybody Dance". "I Want Your Love". "Le Freak", and "Good Times" from the 1979 album Risqué.
With the majority of the audience being born in the seventies, Nile Rodgers was the perfect act to unite the fans on a sunny Saturday night, and there’s nothing like getting your groove on and belting out the words surrounded by middle aged dad dancers!
7. The Flaming Lips at Festival No. 6, 2017
It always rains in Wales, everyone knows that, so why should an end of summer festival be any different!?
However, you don’t really notice the weather in the extraordinary setting of Portmeirion on the southern shores of Snowdonia. The bijou village was the setting of the 1967 TV Series The Prisoner and is transformed equally seamlessly into Festival No.6.
More than just a music festival, the organisers put on a stirling programme of poetry, comedy, authors and speakers inside the marquees- and the annual torchlit procession accompanied by the astounding vocals Brythoniaid Welsh Male Voice Choir is an eye-opener.
However, snatching a few hours of sunshine amongst the downpours, the festival finale was worth waiting for, and The Flaming Lips kept everyone in great spirits. Streamers, balloons and balls were sprinkled onto the audience during set opener ‘Race for the Prize’ which set the tone for the set. Aiming to create a surreal fairytale, which continued with a giant inflatable robot- while crazy-haired frontman, Wayne Coyne straddled an enormous blow up unicorn during ‘There Should Be Unicorns’. The final song was a cover of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, which he performed from within a hamster ball... If the rain had got you down, this performance was definitely a spirit lifter for all!
The Wilderness Festival is most well-known for its Lake Majestic which is full of extroverts skinny dipping. Apparently, David Cameron has been spotted there too (at the festival, not skinny dipping!!) Set in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds, Oxfordshire - the postcode reeks sophistication, and the Cornbury Park estate in Oxford, has 5,000 acres for fun seekers to call home for five days.
In this stunning setting, which has boutique camping, bell tents, yurts and cabins, already set up, the focus is on having a good time, and although you might be tempted by the banquet dining, Veuve Clicquot champagne terrace, hot tubs, wood carving, foraging and toxic masculinity workshops, my favourite place was the woodland stage, where things got messy after dark!
The aptly named Valley, is where the dance scene takes place. While most of the music in the main arena is turned off at 11, it is only getting started amidst the ancient oak trees
Saturday night with Kim Ann Foxman is one of those nights when I stayed up to see the sun rise. The incredible location, friendly punters and energy on stage. The New York based producer and DJ knows how to throw a party, and has a huge solo following due to her association with alternative dance act Hercules and Love Affair. Riding the wave since 2008 when electroclash was at its peak, Kim Ann has always shone as a performer in clubs-both on stage and as a DJ and her set at Wilderness was maxed with raw, hedonistic electronic sounds, which took me back to my good old-fashioned raving days.
9. Grace Jones at The Secret Garden Party, 2008
Grace Jones is a phenomenon. Fact! And witnessing this one-woman whirlwind was a truly life affirming spectacle. Intimidating, euphoric and insane all at the same time. Even when the producers pulled the plug on her show due to curfew.
Of course, she arrived 45 minutes late, materialising in a black basque and hood from a concealed under stage staircase- warming the excited crowd up with a sultry rendition of ‘Nightclubbing’.
I, like the rest of the audience, was having kittens as this vision that was so iconic purred her way through her vast repertoire. The costume changes came as frequently as the songs - with renditions of ‘Jamaican Guy’, ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ and ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ along with her full band and several dancers plucked from the crowd.
Looking forward to watching this seventy something granny hula hoop in a black thong leotard was on my bucket list, but before she could get into the swing of her trademark swinging hips, the sound was abruptly cut.
She remained in position, on stage ignoring the fact there was no music, while the audience was chanting for it to be turned back on. However, crew and producers faffed around the diva, and finally convinced her that the curfew had been hit. No music after midnight- due to compliance with local residents. Half a Grace Jones show is better than none at all!
10. Bestival 2011, The Cure
Who would have thought a festival on a teeny island would have become so iconic? Rob Da Bank had faith when he started Bestival on the Isle of Wight in 2004, and I went for the first time six years later. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded who was playing, but Saturday headliners, the Cure were the icing on the cake, as I wrapped up for some serious swaying along to the memory of the minimalist, ghostly post-punkers of my youth.
As their only festival appearance that year, they certainly let their hair down (or should that be sprayed up!) and Robert Smith – after almost thirty years in the business still managed to look rock ‘n’ roll. The set opened with “Plainsong” from Disintegration, but soon the tempo was rising, and by the time the band started “Friday I’m in Love”, the set was in full swing.
Dancing like no one was watching to “The Lovecats” and joining in with the tens of thousands in the crowd to sing the “ba ba ba bas” it was serious nostalgia- whilst “Close to Me” finished the night on an unforgettable grunge kick.
For more articles on music festivals, read:
Cover Credit: Katja Ogrin / Redferns / Getty Images
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Writer | Sara Darling
Sara loves a juicy interview, and is a seasoned travel, fashion and lifestyle journalist with a passion for trying new things (currently aerial yoga and baking). It’s highly likely you will find her clutching her dolly trolley, passport and glass of fizz en route to somewhere fabulous, but when she has to be on solid ground, you can listen to her chatting on her podcast, Talking Travels and Other Stuff.